Tuesday, January 8, 2019

URSP Student Karen Therrien Studies the NMDA Receptor

Throughout the semester I am studying a protein called the NMDA receptor, assessing how it operates in mouse spinal cord neurons. This receptor can be found throughout the brain and spinal cord in mammals and is crucial to information storage within the nervous system. The NMDA receptor is perhaps best known as a facilitator of memory formation and learning, two processes that require the connections between individual neurons to be both strengthened and weakened throughout development. 

However, I became interested in this topic due a lesser-known aspect of NMDA receptor function. My cousin has a rare genetic condition called the Phelan-McDermid Syndrome, which generally results in speech delay, intellectual disability, and varied physical complications such as epilepsy. Recent work with mouse models of this condition has shown a direct link between the Phelan-McDermid Syndrome and reduced NMDA receptor activity. This inspired me to search for a way to study this receptor in isolation, using the techniques I had learned from my work in Dr. Peixoto’s Neural Engineering Lab. 

At the beginning of the semester I had the opportunity to perform an animal surgery for the first time, removing the spinal cords from tiny, embryonic mice. I then spent several weeks monitoring the spinal cord neurons I had removed and recording neural firing from individual cultures. Although many of the neurons began to die midway through the semester, preventing me from performing most of the experiments I had originally planned, I adapted to the setback and have shifted gears. Currently I’m working on using targeted fluorescent stains to tag protein markers within spinal cord and prefrontal cortex mouse neurons, in order to better visualize the cells. This experience overall has strengthened my drive to continue research while at Mason, possibly leading to graduate work in neuroscience and genetics.